COVID vaccination rates are closely correlated to presidential election results

Republicans now face a moral dilemma — some of their constituents could needlessly die of COVID-19 infections if they don’t reject the partisan messaging from their party that underplays the risks of the virus and oversells the risks of vaccines.

The divide among the states is striking. Quite a few states will hit President Joe Biden’s goal to have 70% of adults vaccinated by July 4, and nearly all of those are states Biden won in last year’s presidential election. The states that are coming up short of the vaccine goal are those states won by then-President Donald Trump.

The figure below plots out each state in terms of its vote in the 2020 presidential election and the percentage of adults who have received at least one COVID vaccine. There is a remarkably strong relationship between these two trends. In statistics, a correlation coefficient measures the relationship between two different variables; it ranges from zero (meaning there’s no relationship at all) to one (meaning the two variables are essentially identical). In this case, the correlation is .85. We almost never see this high a correlation between variables in the social sciences.

Vaccinations are a better predictor of state voting patterns in 2020 than education, racial composition, or almost any other demographic factor. And while voting patterns don’t really shift much from election to election, vaccination rates are a better predictor of the 2020 election than the 2000 election is. That is, if you want to know how a state voted in 2020, you can get more information from knowing its current vaccination rate than from knowing how it voted 20 years ago.

This pattern isn’t just at the state level, but shows up within states, as well. Below is a similar graph as above, only this time just focusing on Colorado counties. As we can see, the more a county voted for Joe Biden last year, the higher the share of eligible residents who have been vaccinated. The correlation here is .835, almost exactly the same as it is among the states. And that figure varies considerably. Mesa County, the largest county on the Western Slope, has only 44% of its adults with at least a dose of the vaccine, while several counties are near or above 80%.

Colorado is far from unique in this. Political scientist Tom Pepinsky recently ran the numbers and found, in nearly all fifty states, a strong relationship between county-level presidential election results and vaccination rates.

So what’s going on here? At least on some level, it’s useful to examine state and county vaccination rates, since it’s those governments that are responsible for administering the vaccines, and they have come up with different and creative ways to do this. For example, Colorado, Ohio, and several other states are running a million-dollar lottery for vaccine recipients, while Washington state is giving out marijuana to the vaccinated, and West Virginia is giving out, among other things, hunting rifles as an incentive.

But a lot of these differences in vaccine rates are likely driven by partisanship at the individual level. Sometimes the relationships we see at aggregate levels (like states or counties) actually obscure a different pattern at the individual level. But not in this case.

As public opinion surveys have demonstrated since the beginning of the pandemic, Republicans and Democrats have very different assessments of the disease and just how dangerous it is. Throughout 2020, roughly twice as many Democrats as Republicans thought COVID was a major threat to the health of the American population. Democrats have consistently been more likely to wear masks, to favor business restrictions to slow the spread of the illness, and to believe the warnings of medical scientists.

And these differences resulted quite logically from the messaging people were getting from their party’s leadership. As we know from decades of political science research, most people don’t just start with a blank slate and figure out their opinions on public policy questions on their own. They rely on partisan cues. That is, they look to the opinions of people they trust in politics and tend to adopt those views.

In the case of COVID, the partisan cues have been speaking very loudly. Trump — with the exception of a few weeks in the spring of 2020 — consistently played down the seriousness of the pandemic; said it was nearly over even as it was spreading like wildfire; expressed skepticism in the findings and recommendations of the medical community, and called for resistance to masking rules and business regulations. Republican policymakers have largely echoed those comments since he left office. Democratic leaders, meanwhile, expressed nearly the opposite viewpoints, almost in unison. Public opinion has closely followed the discourse of political leaders.

And just as the public was polarized about the virus, so it is polarized about the vaccines. What’s more, divisions about this vaccine have spilled over into other areas of public health. As schools and other institutions wrestle with requiring people to vaccinate, they’re finding a deeply polarized response.

Despite some of the recent heated rhetoric about mandatory vaccines, these have been part of our lives for many decades. Just try to enroll your kid in a school or summer camp without their polio, measles, or chickenpox shots being up to date. And overwhelmingly we’ve accepted this as one of the rules for living in a society.

But as this recent study by Ariel Fridman, Rachel Gershon, and Ayelet Gneezy demonstrated, growing polarization over the COVID vaccine has led to a growing polarization of opinions about vaccinations in general. There used to be few partisan differences in beliefs about the flu vaccine, for example, but Republicans are becoming less interested in it.

As sociologist Jennifer Reich has noted, there’s been a small but persistent population resistant to getting vaccines for decades, and that population doesn’t necessarily fall into just one party. But opposition to vaccines is increasingly becoming a core belief among some Republicans.

The consequences of this polarization are significant. While caseloads in much of Colorado are dropping, they’re spiking in Mesa County, where vaccination rates have been low, overwhelming the hospital system. Similarly, more aggressive strains of the virus are spreading around the world and in the United States, and those areas with lower vaccination rates are likely to experience considerable spikes in illness and more deaths.

Some Republican leaders, including former President George W. Bush and Senators Tommy Tuberville, Roger Marshall, and Shelley Moore Capito, have been publicly encouraging people to get vaccinated. This sort of messaging could make a real difference in reducing vaccine skepticism and literally saving lives. They’re pushing against some very strong partisan messaging, but that’s what’s necessary to keep a self-inflicted wound from becoming an even greater tragedy.

Seth Masket is a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. He is the author of Learning from Loss: The Democrats 2016-2020.

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